Friday, November 21, 2008 

"Breaking" Paradigms

For comic book collectors, past and present, 2008 has been an outstanding year of onscreen adaptations. This summer will be remembered as the one that gave us the first legitimate blockbuster of the season in IRON MAN (with Robert Downey, Jr. in the titular role), followed by the second highest grossing movie of all time in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT. I’ve watched Guillermo Del Toro’s beautiful and entertaining HELLBOY II countless times since the DVD hit shelves and who would have ever thought we’d see Edward Norton as THE INCREDIBLE HULK? Even better, we still have WATCHMEN to look forward to in March of next year.

The question all fans tend to raise again and again is, however, in the pantheon of truly great superhero movies, how do these recent releases stack up? Where do they place alongside the universally accepted standards like the first SPIDERMAN or X-MEN 2, for example? And for every time I hear a case made for fare like SUPERMAN RETURNS or BLADE there is always one comic book/superhero movie that tends to get overlooked.

“Real life doesn’t fit inside little boxes that were drawn for it.”

As more and more adaptations find success by grounding themselves in gritty reality, M. Night Shyamalan’s (The Sixth Sense) UNBREAKABLE (2000) remains the most realistic depiction of what it might be like if a regular human being was suddenly imbued with very irregular superhuman powers. Not only that but it may also be Shyamalan’s personal best.

UNBREAKABLE’s characters, security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and comic book art dealer Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) lives intersect when a train on which David is a passenger derails and he emerges unscathed, the only survivor. Elijah hears about this miraculous incident and takes a special interest in David, who he sees as his opposite, since he himself suffers from an affliction known as osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that renders his bones very brittle and easily breakable. Suffering in this way feeds his insatiable interest in the fantasy world of comic books and the escape they provide but it might also be responsible for his certainly eccentric and perhaps mentally disturbed nature. His mostly depressing childhood is detailed in a series of painful and heartbreaking flashbacks (In fact, the opening alone would be considered horrifying if it were placed as the introduction to any other movie. In a Philadelphia department store, a young black woman gives birth to a baby boy. A doctor (Eamonn Walker) enters the room to have a look at the still-crying newborn before the ambulance arrives. The mask of disbelief that suddenly covers his face tells the whole story. ”What happened during the delivery? Did you drop this baby?” ) while David’s past is shrouded in mystery and slowly unravels as UNBREAKABLE creeps to its conclusion.

David and Elijah are indeed connected and are very much opposites. While David has believed all his life that his frighteningly real gifts have just been a coincidence, it’s Elijah’s deranged notions and infatuation with comic books that, by coincidence, turn out to be real. When UNBREAKABLE finally reaches its legitimately shocking and heart-pounding denouement, David has found out who he truly is but he also finds out who Elijah is and despite his fragile nature, he isn’t quite as helpless or friendly as he appears.

In UNBREAKABLE we find M. Night using a few familiar devices and revisiting themes that would come to permeate nearly all of his future works (and I don’t mean the “twist” ending, either): young children in central roles (here it is Spencer Treat Clark as the son who believes his father is somehow special) and unexplained martial problems (Robin Wright Penn plays Willis' estranged wife). Throughout his career, Shyamalan, early on at least, was hailed as a young genius and has often drawn comparisons to the late, great Alfred Hitchcock. While I would personally never go that far, I will say that he has similar success at building suspense. He also has a great gift in that, while writers like Tarantino, Mamet, Smith and others write characters who supposedly talk like we talk, Shyamalan creates people who act like we act. He knows when to be “still” and let a character’s silence or being in thought, their movement and their actions be the only exposition the audience needs or will get. Night also makes interesting choices with his camera, often times choosing to shoot intimate conversations from a distance as if we were eavesdropping on the participants or shooting his characters’ individual perspectives from decidedly different angles. He also makes great use of color to differentiate between the worlds of Dunn and Price.

UNBREAKABLE is, without a doubt, what the world would look like if superheroes actually walked among us. NBC’s Heroes this ain’t. To quote Frank Miller, a person need not fly to be "heroic." If this were a comic book, it would be an origin story; a journey where someone finding something exceptional within themselves, a hero answering “the call” and it all plays out very realistically. The characters are your average, “everyday” people and, as Shyamalan himself says, exist in a world where the hero is “flawed” and the villain is “endearing.” In the end, we learn a simple truth: good cannot exist without evil. That every protagonist needs an antagonist and when one takes up his mantle, then so can the other. “Now that we know who you are, I know who I am,” Elijah says tearfully in one of his final bittersweet lines. It is a proud moment for him and after witnessing all of his life’s hardships, it would be a rewarding and uplifting experience for the audience as well...if it weren’t also so simultaneously unnerving and discomforting.

Sunday, November 02, 2008 

Go Hard

'Zack & Miri Make A Porno' director Smith suffers from an identity crisis

Pittsburgh residents Zack and Miri have been slacker roommates and best friends since graduating high school ten years ago. After recent financial crisis, inadvertant internet celebrity and a chance meeting with a porn star at their humiliating high school reunion all conveniently intersect, Zack hatches a plot to use all of the above as the impetus to make his own amateur adult movie to get them out of debt. He enlists the aid of his co-worker Delaney (The Office's Craig Robinson, a scene-stealing machine) to act as producer, a hockey buddy Deacon (Jeff "Randall Graves" Anderson) as his cameraman and through an audition process hires "Bubbles" (a droll and boring Traci Lords), Stacey (the perpetually perky Katie Morgan), Barry (Ricky Mabe) and Lester (Jason Mewes, more than willing to provide the full-frontal male nudity) to round out the cast of -- what else would a porn parody be called in a Kevin Smith movie? -- "Star Whores." During the filming of their homemade project, Zack and Miri discover feelings for one another that they didn't know they had.

Don't believe the hype. For all the highly-publicized battles with the MPAA over the final rating, banned movie posters, television spots conveniently changing the title depending on what hour they aired and how outrageous and controversial Kevin Smith would like you to believe Zack & Miri Make a Porno is, it is completely underwhelming.

I went in expecting to be pleasantly surprised with non-stop and full-on hilarity in the same vein as Clerks II (a movie I thought would be a surefire disappointment and a self-serving grab at the cash) but Zack and Miri comes up short and ironically enough, this seems to be the movie where Smith is finally taking aim at crossover appeal. I didn't see anything here that would even warrant a very hard R much less an NC-17 rating. Other than the overabundance of coarse language (which feels it's there just for the sake of being there) that seems to have replaced the usual wit and pop culture ruminations of Smith's characters and the nudity, which is a lot less frequent than the title would lead you to imagine, I can't see how anyone would find this movie any more offensive than any number of potty-mouthed, toilet-humor movies that have preceded it. It's not that I wanted or needed anything more intense or graphic but the filming of the actual porno seemed fairly comical, over-the-top and tame considering all the fuss that's been made over the past few months.

It's as if Smith had a great idea for a romantic comedy but was missing something that would sell it so in between seeing cameos by the likes of Stormy, Nautica Thorn, Jenna Haze and Aurora Snow in Judd Apatow's movies (the 40 Year Old Virgin director who has seen significant more success than Smith following a slightly dumbed down version of the blueprint one could say Smith created yet Apatow improved upon it by having actual craft and utilizing way better comedic acting talent) and seeing Katie Morgan on HBO, he came up with the implausible "make a porno" slant and quickly jotted down the rest of this threadbare script on a napkin. This is very obviously an "I've got a cool title and I'll just write a movie around it" movie and it shows. In fact, Miri is so underdeveloped as a character that I still don't know what it is she even did for a living (which is a shame because Elizabeth Banks might very well be the best thing here). Apparently out of ideas, Smith even harkens back to Clerks (I know, surprise surprise) when "Star Whores"' first location gets destroyed and Zack decides to shoot the movie where he works after hours, the same way Smith famously shot Clerks at night in the convenience store where he was employed.

Zack and Miri isn't going to do itself any favors as far as other Apatow comparisons go, either; for the first twenty minutes I thought that's exactly what I was watching, not to mention Smith takes the liberty of casting about half of Apatow's regular and peripheral players (check out Gerry Bednob basically being "Mooj" from 4YOV all over again, this time as Zack's boss at the Bean-N-Gone coffee shop, Seth Rogen remains the very same unattractive yet sincere and loveable schlub he is in Knocked Up and that's just for starters). Smith has deviated from the conventions he more or less created to make an Apatow-a-like movie in an attempt to finally reach the broader audience that has managed to elude him but in the process lost the rambling yet unique dialogue and inherent charm that I go to see Kevin Smith movies for. On the bright side, there are a few comical cameos in the form of Justin Long, Brandon Routh, Tisha Campbell-Martin and for eagle-eyed porn fans, Pittsburgh's own Ricki Raxxx gets a few seconds of screen time.

It's a considerable stretch to believe that two life-long pals could only come to the realization they they're in love with each other after having their backs against the wall to the point where they have to have onscreen sex. But the promise of a Kevin Smith movie got me into the theater, which was entirely the point. But I should leave feeling satisfied that Smith delivered what he promised, not that I got duped. And ninety minutes later I felt more like a sucker than a proud Smith acolyte. This is not what I go to see his movies for. It's a shame that after years of inspiring others, Kevin Smith is no longer content to be himself.